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Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret

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Ben Taub writes in the New Yorker:

The Guard

In 2004, Steve Wood was deployed to Guantánamo Bay, as a member of the Oregon National Guard. He and his comrades were told that many of the detainees were responsible for 9/11 and, given the opportunity, would strike again. “I just remember being super excited, because I thought, I’m going to be doing something important,” Wood told me. For two weeks, he worked as a guard in the cellblocks, monitoring men who had been captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Then a sergeant major pulled him aside for a brief interview, and assigned him to work the night shift in Echo Special, a secret, single-occupancy unit that had been built to house the United States military’s highest-value detainee. The International Committee of the Red Cross—which has access to many of the world’s most notorious detention sites, some of them in countries where there is no rule of law—had recently sent representatives to Guantánamo, but the base commander, citing “military necessity,” had refused to allow them into Echo Special. The man confined there was referred to by his detainee number, 760. When Wood tried to search for 760 in Guantánamo’s detainee database, he found nothing.

Wood was the second of three boys. His father died in a plane crash when he was three years old, and his mother brought him and his brothers up in Molalla, Oregon, a lumber town about an hour south of Portland. His mother dated a string of alcoholics and addicts, and took the children to an evangelical church on Sundays; Pat Robertson’s sermons blasted from the living-room TV. In 1999, shortly after graduating from high school, Wood started a job at the local sawmill. Several of his co-workers were missing fingers, and the manager took every opportunity to denigrate the staff. After a few months, he signed up for the Oregon National Guard, on the military-police track. He sought structure and discipline—a life of pride, purpose, and clarity of mission.

After 9/11, patriotism eclipsed restlessness as Wood’s primary motivation to serve. He had spent the morning of the worst terrorist attack in American history lying on his mother’s couch, high on painkillers after a tonsillectomy, but when he emerged from the haze he was angry, focussed, and longing for deployment. He didn’t harbor any particular animosity toward Muslims, but he had absorbed his mother’s belief: “If it’s not from Jesus then it must be from the Devil.” After completing the requirements to become an M.P., Wood enrolled in a criminal-justice program at a nearby community college. He recalled his political views as being “whatever Fox News told us.” He didn’t know the difference between a Hindu, a Sikh, and a Muslim—he had never met one.

Before his first shift in Echo Special, Wood was told to place a strip of electrical tape over the name on his uniform, and to use only nicknames inside the cell, so that if 760 were to somehow sneak a message out of the camp he couldn’t issue fatwas against his guards or their families. “Never turn your back,” the sergeant major warned him. Wood, who was twenty-three, had recently learned that his girlfriend was pregnant. He wouldn’t take any chances. “You trust the handcuffs and everything, but, no matter what, we’d never be with him one on one—there would always be a partner,” Wood told me. Until recently, the guards and the interrogators had worn Halloween masks inside the cell. Wood walked through the camp to Echo Special proud to be part of a serious national-security operation. He thought, It must be somebody really important—the most dangerous person in the world, perhaps—to have this special attention, a guard force just for him.

Echo Special was a trailer that had been divided in two. Wood walked into the main area, which housed the guards; through a door was the prisoner’s sleeping space. A government report describes the facility as having been “modified in such a way as to reduce as much outside stimuli as possible,” with doors that had been “sealed to a point that allows no light to enter the room.” Inside, the walls were “covered with white paint or paper to further eliminate objects the detainee may concentrate on.” There was an eyebolt for shackling him to the floor, and speakers for bombarding him with sound.

An M.P. explained to Wood that the current guard force called Detainee 760 “Pillow,” because when they had arrived, several months earlier, a pillow was the only object in his possession. Then one of them shouted, “Pillow, you can come out now!” A short man in his mid-thirties stepped into the guards’ area, unshackled. He wore a broad smile and a white jumpsuit, and moved cautiously toward Wood. The detainee introduced himself as Mohamedou Salahi, then reached for a handshake, and said, “What’s up, dude?”

Wood is six feet three, with a shaved head, a shy, stoic manner, and the musculature of an élite bodybuilder. Although he towered over Salahi, he hesitated before taking his hand, and when he did he noted how delicate Salahi was. “Nice to meet you,” Wood said. But he thought, What the fuck is this? This is the exact opposite of what’s supposed to happen.

The fragmented image of Mohamedou Salahi that United States military, law-enforcement, and intelligence agencies assembled in a classified dossier was that of a “highly intelligent” Mauritanian electrical engineer, who, “as a key al-Qaida member,” had played a role in several mass-casualty plots. Other men carried box cutters and explosives; Salahi was a ghost on the periphery. The evidence against him lacked depth, but investigators considered its breadth conclusive. His proximity to so many events and high-level jihadi figures could not be explained by coincidence, they thought, and only a logistical mastermind could have left so faint a trail.

The U.S. government gathered that in 1991, when Salahi was twenty, he swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and the following year he learned to handle weapons at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. Later, Salahi moved to Germany, where, the Americans assessed, “his primary responsibility was to recruit for al-Qaida in Europe.” Among his alleged recruits were three of the 9/11 hijackers, all of whom served as pilots on separate planes. A fourth was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the attack coördinator; while in C.I.A. custody, bin al-Shibh named Salahi as the man who had arranged his travel to Afghanistan and his introduction to bin Laden.

In 1998, shortly after Al Qaeda detonated truck bombs outside the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Salahi took a call from a phone number belonging to bin Laden. Then, and on at least one other occasion, a member of Al Qaeda’s Shura Council—its leadership—wired some four thousand dollars to Salahi’s bank account in Germany; Salahi withdrew the cash and handed it to men who were travelling to West Africa, to facilitate what the Americans assessed to be money-laundering and telecommunications “projects for al-Qaida.”

In 1999, the Shura member called Salahi, but U.S. intelligence didn’t know what his instructions were. In November of that year, Salahi moved to Montreal, where he began leading prayers at a prominent mosque. Soon afterward, a jihadi who had attended the same mosque—and who the Americans believed had met Salahi—attempted to smuggle explosives in the trunk of a car across the U.S. border; his plan was to detonate suitcases inside Los Angeles International Airport, in what became known as the Millennium Plot. Canada’s Secret Intelligence Service began a surveillance operation focussing on Salahi and his associates, but Salahi noticed two pinhole cameras poking through his apartment walls and left the country. The U.S. government concluded that he was “the leader of the Montreal-based al-Qaida cell.”

In Guantánamo, Salahi admitted to this and other allegations. “I came to Canada with a plan to blow up the CN Tower in Toronto,” Salahi wrote, in one of his many confessions. He listed his accomplices and added, “thanks to Canadian Intel, the plan was discovered and sentenced to failure.” After years of holding out in interrogations, he had become what the classified dossier described as a “highly cooperative” font of intelligence—“one of the most valuable sources in detention.” He described Al Qaeda’s financial involvement in credit-card fraud and drug smuggling, and also the group’s “investment in unwitting companies in Bosnia, Canada, Chechnya, Denmark, England, Germany, Mauritania, and Spain.” He drew organizational charts, with the names and operational roles of key figures, and supplied intelligence on jihadi cells and safe houses all over Europe and West Africa. Owing to his expertise as an electrical engineer, the dossier concludes, Salahi was also able to describe Al Qaeda’s elaborate communications systems, “including radio relay, couriers, encryption, phone boutiques, and satellite communication links to laptops.” But the U.S. government was sure there was more to be gleaned from him; the dossier says that he “still has useful information” on a variety of subjects, including the 9/11 attacks, and lists twenty-two additional “areas of potential exploitation.” Military officials considered him “the poster child for the intelligence effort at Guantánamo.”

As a result of Salahi’s coöperation, his private cell was now stocked with what the government referred to as “comfort items.” After the pillow came soap, towels, a prayer cap, and prayer beads—by the time Steve Wood arrived, Salahi also had books, a television, a PlayStation, and an old laptop, on which he killed time playing chess and watching DVDs. Eventually, Salahi would be allowed access to a small patch of soil outside his trailer, where he tended sunflowers, basil, sage, parsley, and cilantro. “What I was told was that his information had saved thousands of American lives,” Wood said, “and this is what they’d given him to keep talking.”

Salahi was taken into custody when he was thirty years old, but he had already lived on four continents, and spoke fluent Arabic, French, and German. English was his fourth language. Since he had learned it in captivity, some of his earliest phrases were “I ain’t done nothing,” “cavity search,” “fuck this,” and “fuck that.” “My problem is that I had been picking the language from the ‘wrong’ people—namely, U.S. Forces recruits who speak grammatically incorrectly,” he wrote on a scrap of paper inside his cell. “English accepts more curses than any other language, and I soon learned to curse with the commoners.”

As a matter of professionalism, Wood resolved from the outset to bury in the back of his mind what he had heard of Salahi’s past. “It’s hard to sit there and laugh and chat with the guy, if he’s actually that bad,” Wood told me. The night shift was twelve hours, and he never saw Salahi shackled or restrained. Other Guantánamo prisoners threw punches and feces and urine, but, according to the classified dossier, Salahi’s only disciplinary infraction was that, on May 11, 2003, he “possessed an excessive amount of MRE food.”

Salahi often appeared sullen and withdrawn. But, when he wanted to engage, he spoke with a worldly, provocative humor that Wood found appealing. He liked to rile his guards into debating equality, race, and religion, and he wielded a sophisticated understanding of history and geopolitics to chip away at their beliefs. Before meeting Salahi, Wood had never heard of Mauritania; Salahi told him that, to his great embarrassment, slavery was still practiced there, even among people close to him. Salahi also pushed him to research Western foreign-policy blunders—for example, that in 1953 the American and the British intelligence services had orchestrated a coup in Iran, overthrowing a popular Prime Minister in order to prop up a tyrannical, pro-Western Shah. “Have you heard of Nelson Mandela?” Wood recalled Salahi saying. “Look him up, dude. Look up the prison on Robben Island. See if you think his captivity was just. See what it did to his family.”

A job posting depicts life as an intelligence officer in Guantánamo Bay as “a rewarding challenge with incredible surroundings”—sunsets, beaches, iguanas, pristine Caribbean blue. “After a hustled day of tackling a myriad of issues and directly contributing to the global war on terrorism,” it reads, “fun awaits.” Officers could partake in pottery classes, paintball, rugby, tennis, and softball, or exercise in several pools and gyms. The local dive shop offered gear and certifications for sailing, water-skiing, snorkelling, scuba diving, and more: “No experience, no problem. . . . Relaxing is easy.”

In practice, many military-police officers killed time by watching movies and getting drunk at the Tiki Bar; they also took flights to Afghanistan, to pick up more detainees. But Wood spent his days in the base library, researching topics that Salahi had brought up in the cell. He devoured volumes on history, foreign affairs, politics, civil rights—“pretty much any type of book you could think of, other than, like, romance novels,” he said. “I was educating myself on the world.” But, because Salahi’s trailer was a national secret, Wood kept a cordial distance from most of the other guards. “I’d come home and iron my uniform, and my roommates didn’t know a thing,” he said. “They’d ask me, ‘Who’s in there?,’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know, probably somebody famous.’ ”

In time, Wood began to think of everything he had known before meeting Salahi as a narrow-minded myth of American superiority, notable for its omissions of overseas misadventures. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration’s pretext for invading Iraq was collapsing, and so was Wood’s trust in government. It was the spring of 2004. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The “mission” had not been “accomplished.” When Wood watched the evening news, he saw photographs of American M.P.s torturing and sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. He began to wonder whether the case against Mohamedou Salahi was as flimsy and politically motivated as that for the invasion had been. “I was, like, What else have they lied about?” he said.

Salahi underwent daily interrogations. The sessions Wood witnessed were calm and courteous, with Salahi attempting to answer everything asked of him. “It was the pretty blond interrogator bringing in these disks with footage from Al Qaeda and Taliban training camps in Afghanistan,” Wood recalled. The videos had been pulled from jihadi Web sites, or captured by intelligence officers during raids, and Salahi’s role was to identify the people in them. But sometimes, after coöperating, “he’d get depressed and anxious, and say, ‘I’m a bad Muslim,’ ” Wood told me. “And I’d say, ‘No matter what you did in the past, man, you’ve saved thousands of lives.’ I’d always say that, and he’d just shake his head, like, ‘Bullshit.’ ”

One night, when Salahi was asleep, Wood heard sounds that reminded him of a child having a nightmare. He walked into the sleeping area and found Salahi lying in the fetal position, shaking. No adult in Wood’s life had ever looked so frightened and so vulnerable. He gently held Salahi’s shoulder, and said, “Everything’s O.K.” Salahi shook his head, and clicked his tongue in disagreement, but refused to speak. The next day, Wood pressed him to talk about the episode, but Salahi wouldn’t elaborate. He just said, “Dude, they fucked me up.”

The night terrors kept coming. Salahi was on a diet of Ensure nutrition shakes and antidepressants. One day, he complained to Wood that the interrogators were demanding information on events that he couldn’t possibly know about, because they had taken place while he was in custody.

Although Wood had introduced himself to Salahi as Stretch, his nickname from the sawmill, Salahi had quickly learned his real name, as well as those of the other guards. “The tape would fall off our uniforms,” Wood recalled. “We’d try to cover it back up, real quick, but eventually we were, like, fuck it. We knew he wasn’t a threat.” Where once he had struggled to forgive himself for enjoying Salahi’s company, he now felt bad about having to lock the door at the end of each shift. He walked into the morning sunlight in a daze, unable to reconcile his impression of the man in Echo Special with the depiction of the terrorist in the dossier. Had Wood remained as a regular guard, in one of the regular cellblocks, he might have finished his deployment with his understanding of the global war on terror more or less intact. Instead, he began to wonder whether what he was actually protecting at Guantánamo was one of the government’s darkest secrets: that its highest-value military detainee was being held essentially by mistake, and that his isolation in Echo Special was intended to cover up the hell that had been inflicted upon him.

One day, Salahi started requesting paper from his guards. As the result of a recent court ruling, Guantánamo detainees had access to legal representation, and so, during the next several months, Salahi drafted a diary of his detention as a series of harrowing letters to his lawyers, Nancy Hollander, Sylvia Royce, and Theresa Duncan—four hundred and sixty-six pages, sealed in envelopes and mailed to a classified facility near Washington, D.C. No guards or interrogators were allowed to read Salahi’s work. For the first time, he described his experiences without fear of retribution. On one page, he recalled the day he got his nickname, when an interrogator brought him a pillow. “I received the present with a fake overwhelming happiness, and not because I was dying to get a pillow,” he wrote. “No. I took the pillow as a sign of the end of the physical torture.”

The Detainee

Mohamedou Ould Salahi was born in late December, 1970, the ninth child of a Mauritanian camel herder and his wife. Like most countries in West Africa, Mauritania had gained independence from France a decade earlier. Few locals spoke French, but since the country had been arbitrarily drawn up as a vast, mostly desert territory, populated by numerous ethnic groups who spoke different languages, there was no alternative for official documentation. When a nurse, who spoke only Hassaniya Arabic, filled out Mohamedou’s birth certificate in the Latin alphabet, she omitted a syllable from his last name. Salahi became “Slahi.” So began a life in which governments treated Salahi in accordance with their own mistakes. . .

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There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 April 2019 at 12:55 pm

Racism Is Good at Hiding. Just Ask This White Nationalist Police Officer.

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Zak Cheney-Rice writes in New York:

The historical ties between American law-enforcement agencies and white supremacist groups are well documented. Southern sheriffs abetted Ku Klux Klansmen under Jim Crow. The FBI posted a bulletin in 2006 warning about white nationalists and skinheads infiltrating police entities, citing cases in Ohio, Illinois, Texas, and California, including the formation of a neo-Nazi gang by officials within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The armed forces have been implicated as well. Federal agents in February arrested a 49-year-old Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist who had amassed 15 firearms and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition while planning a massacre of innocent civilians “on a scale rarely seen in this country,” according to court documents.

Most of the accused are united as much by their bigoted beliefs as their ability to fortify them in private while maintaining a veneer of public respectability. But as has been true throughout history, the most recent reported case proves these impulses are not at odds. On the contrary, they are intimately connected, and often make one another possible.

The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill reported this week that Daniel Morley, a 31-year-old school resource officer employed by L.C. Bird High School in Chesterfield, Virginia, is also an organizer for Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group also known as the American Identity Movement. His involvement was first exposed on Monday by Virginia anti-fascists, according to the report, who leaked the group’s online chat messages. (Morley has since been suspended, pending a departmental investigation). The exchanges they uncovered suggest that Morley holds an esteemed and valuable position within the organization: coordinating new recruits. His particular focus is on helping members hide their bigotry and racist aims from the public by employing misleading language.

According to Weill, this role is an extension of Morley’s activities going back a decade, to his days as a commenter on the white supremacist website Stormfront. “A good strategy would be to steer the definition of ‘racism’ towards ‘racial hatred,’” he reportedly counseled one Identity Evropa member last year. “We don’t hate other races, so we’re not racists. After all, the word isn’t going away. May as well control it.”

In order to be successful, this brand of subterfuge requires a public that is either too ignorant or in willful denial of racism’s machinations to look past the surface. Fortunately for Morley, he lives in the United States, where questions of racism are often litigated in terms of “what’s in a person’s heart,” or what they are willing to admit publicly. Such myopia permitted Representative Steve King of Iowa to espouse white nationalism for more than a decade, with the only rebuke from his fellow Republicans coming in January when he inquired (on the record, in a New York Times profile), “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” It is how U.S. senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker can respond to the question, “Do you believe that Donald Trump is a racist?” with, “I don’t know the heart of anybody. I’ll leave that to the Lord.”

Absent divine insight or X-ray vision, the rest of us will have to do better on our own. To this end, historical evidence is valuable: The impulse to obscure or deny one’s bigoted intentions is not new, nor is it limited to avowed white supremacists. It was being deployed in national politics decades before Donald Trump tried his hand at campaigning, as illuminated when Richard Nixon’s campaign consultant, Lee Atwater, explained the strategy behind his candidate’s efforts to woo southern whites away from the Democratic Party: “By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.”

Indeed, such behavior has become more useful in the post–civil-rights era, as open bigotry has become more taboo in polite company and the explicit racism of Jim Crow–era laws and sumptuary codes ran afoul of federal law, requiring evasive action among its adherents. This is where cries of “reverse racism” enter the discourse, where claims like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s 2007 insistence that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” captures the ethos of pols seeking to override civil-rights gains through fealty to a theoretical — but not actual — equality.

Other manifestations have been less mannered. Morley can find perhaps his most famous modern analogue in former KKK grand wizard David Duke, who has spent decades preoccupied with taking his brand of white nationalism mainstream. He has been remarkably successful. Duke, in 1989, was elected to a seat in Louisiana’s House of Representatives, where he served until 1992. These days, he can be found defending other bigots in public using canards and false equivalences. “[In] this country,  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2019 at 7:57 am

Tech Platforms Obliterated ISIS Online. They Could Use The Same Tools On White Nationalism.

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The puzzle is why Big Tech is so reluctant to take action. Ryan Broderick and Ellie Hall report in Buzzfeed News:

Before killing 50 people during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and injuring 40 more, the gunman apparently decided to fully exploit social media by releasing a manifesto, posting a Twitter thread showing off his weapons, and going live on Facebook as he launched the attack.

The gunman’s coordinated social media strategy wasn’t unique, though. The way he manipulated social media for maximum impact is almost identical to how ISIS, at its peak, was using those very same platforms.

While most mainstream social networks have become aggressive about removing pro-ISIS content from the average user’s feed, far-right extremism and white nationalism continue to thrive. Only the most egregious nodes in the radicalization network have been removed from every platform. The question now is: Will Christchurch change anything?

A 2016 study by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism shows that white nationalists and neo-Nazi supporters had a much larger impact on Twitter than ISIS members and supporters at the time. When looking at about 4,000 accounts of each category, white nationalists and neo-Nazis outperformed ISIS in number of tweets and followers, with an average follower count that was 22 times greater than ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts. The study concluded that by 2016, ISIS had become a target of “large-scale efforts” by Twitter to drive supporters off the platform, like using AI-based technology to automatically flag militant Muslim extremist content, while white nationalists and neo-Nazi supporters were given much more leeway, in large part because their networks were far less cohesive.

Google and Facebook have also invested heavily in AI-based programs that scan their platforms for ISIS activity. Google’s parent company created a program called the Redirect Method that uses AdWords and YouTube video content to target kids at risk of radicalization. Facebook said it used a combination of artificial intelligence and machine learning to remove more than 3 million pieces of ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda in the third quarter of 2018.

These AI tools appear to be working. The pages and groups of ISIS members and supporters have almost been completely scrubbed from Facebook. Beheading videos are pulled down from YouTube within hours. The terror group’s formerly vast network of Twitter accounts have been almost completely erased. Even the slick propaganda videos, once broadcast on multiple platforms within minutes of publication, have been relegated to private groups on apps like Telegram and WhatsApp.

The Christchurch attack is the first big instance of white nationalist extremism being treated — across these three big online platforms — with the same severity as pro-ISIS content. Facebook announced 1.5 million versions of the Christchurch livestream were removed from the platform within the first 24 hours. YouTube said in a statement that “Shocking, violent and graphic content has no place on our platforms, and is removed as soon as we become aware of it,” though the video does continue to appear on the site — a copy of it was being uploaded every second in the first 24 hours. Twitter also said it had taken down the account of the suspected gunman and was working to remove all versions of the video.

The answer to why this kind of cross-network deplatforming hasn’t happened with white nationalist extremism may be found in a 2018 VOX-Pol report authored by the same researcher as the George Washington University study cited above: “The task of crafting a response to the alt-right is considerably more complex and fraught with landmines, largely as a result of the movement’s inherently political nature and its proximity to political power.”

But Silicon Valley’s road to accepting that a group like ISIS could use its technology to radicalize, recruit, and terrorize was a long one. After years of denial and dragging their feet, it was the beheading death of American journalist James Foley, quickly followed by videos of the deaths of other foreign journalists and a British aid worker, and the viral chaos that followed that finally forced tech companies to take the moderation of ISIS seriously. The US and other governments also began putting pressure on Silicon Valley to finally start moderating terror. Tech companies formed joint task forces to share information, working in conjunction with governments and the United Nations and establishing more robust information-sharing systems.

But tech companies and governments can easily agree on removing violent terrorist content; they’ve been less inclined to do this with white nationalist content, which cloaks itself in free speech arguments and which a new wave of populist world leaders are loath to criticize. Christchurch could be another moment for platforms to draw a line in the sand between what is and is not acceptable on their platforms.

Moderating white nationalist extremism is hard because it’s drenched in irony and largely spread online via memes, obscure symbols, and references. The Christchurch gunman ironically told the viewers of his livestream to “Subscribe to Pewdiepie.” His alleged announcement post on 8chan was full of trolly dark web in-jokes. And the cover of his manifesto had a Sonnenrad on it — a sunwheel symbol commonly used by neo-Nazis.

And unlike ISIS, far-right extremism isn’t as centralized. The Christchurch gunman and Christopher Hasson, the white nationalist Coast Guard officer who was arrested last month for allegedly plotting to assassinate politicians and media figures and carry out large-scale terror attacks using biological weapons, were both inspired by Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik. Cesar Sayoc, also known as the “MAGA Bomber,” and the Tree of Life synagogue shooter, both appear to have been partially radicalized via 4chan and Facebook memes.

It may now be genuinely impossible to disentangle anti-Muslim hate speech on Facebook and YouTube from the more coordinated racist 4chan meme pages or white nationalist communities growing on these platforms. “Islamophobia happens to be something that made these companies lots and lots of money,” Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University whose research includes online harassment, recently told BuzzFeed News. She said this type of content leads to engagement, which keeps people using the platform, which generates ad revenue.

YouTube has community guidelines that prohibit all content that encourages or condones violence to achieve ideological goals. For foreign terrorist organizations such as ISIS, it works with law enforcement internet referral units like Europol to ensure the quick removal of terrorist content from the platform. When asked to comment specifically on whether neo-Nazi or white nationalist video content was moderated in a similar fashion to foreign terrorist organizations, a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that hate speech and content that promotes violence have no place on the platform.

“Over the last few years we have heavily invested in human review teams and smart technology that helps us quickly detect, review, and remove this type of content. We have thousands of people around the world who review and counter abuse of our platforms and we encourage users to flag any videos that they believe violate our guidelines,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson from Twitter provided BuzzFeed News with a copy of its policy on extremism, in regards to how it moderates ISIS-related content. “You may not make specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people,” the policy reads. “This includes, but is not limited to, threatening or promoting terrorism.” The spokesperson would not comment specifically on whether using neo-Nazi or white nationalist iconography on Twitter also counted as threatening or promoting terrorism.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on whether white nationalism and neo-Nazism are moderated using the same image matching and language understanding that the platform uses to police ISIS-related content.

Like the hardcore white nationalist and neo-Nazi iconography used by the Christchurch gunman, the more entry-level memes that likely radicalized the MAGA bomber, and the pipeline from mainstream social networks to more private clusters of extremist thought described by the Tree of Life shooter, ISIS’s social media activity before the large-scale crackdown in 2015 had similar tentpoles. It organized around hashtags, distributed propaganda in multiple languages, transmitted coded language and iconography, and siphoned possible recruits from larger mainstream social networks into smaller private messaging platforms.

Its members and supporters were able to post official propaganda materials across platforms with relatively few immediate repercussions. A 2015 analysis of the group’s social media activity found that ISIS released an average of 38 propaganda items a day — most of which did not contain graphic material or content that specifically violated these platforms’ terms of service at the time.

ISIS’s use of Twitter hashtags to effectively spread material in multiple languages went relatively unpoliced for years, as did their use of sharing propaganda material in popular trending tags, in what is known as “hashtag spamming.” As one of many examples, during the 2014 World Cup, ISIS supporters shared images of Iraqi soldiers being executed using the Arabic World Cup tag. They also tweeted propaganda and threats against the US and then-president Barack Obama into the #Ferguson tag during the protests after the death of Michael Brown.

The accounts that were not caught by outsiders for sharing graphic or threatening content often went undetected due to the insulated nature of the communities and the number of languages employed by ISIS members. Also, the group regularly employed coded language, much of which is rooted in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an and can be difficult for non-Muslims to interpret. As one example, fighters killed in battle or killed carrying out terrorist attacks were referred to as “green birds,” referencing the belief that martyrs of Islam are carried to heaven in the hearts of green birds.’

ISIS’s digital free-for-all started to end on Aug. 19, 2014. A YouTube account that claimed to be the official channel for the so-called Islamic State uploaded a video titled “A Message to America.” The video opened with a clip of Obama announcing airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria and then cut away to a masked ISIS member standing next to Foley, kneeling on the ground wearing an orange jumpsuit. Foley had been captured by insurgent forces while covering the Syrian Civil War in November 2012. The 4-minute, 40-second video showed his execution by beheading and then a shot of his decapitated head atop his body.

Within minutes of the Foley video being uploaded to YouTube, it started spreading across social media. #ISIS, #JamesFoley, and #IslamicState started trending on Twitter. Users started the #ISISMediaBlackout, urging people not to share the video or screenshots from it.

Then a ripple effect — similar to Alex Jones being deplatformed last year — began. In Jones’ case, first he was kicked off Apple’s iTunes and Podcast apps, then YouTube and Facebook removed him from their platforms, then Twitter, and finally his app was removed from Apple’s App Store.

In 2014, it was YouTube that was the first platform to pull down the James Foley video for violating the site’s policy against videos that “promote terrorism.”

“YouTube has clear policies that prohibit content like gratuitous violence, hate speech and incitement to commit violent acts, and we remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users,” the company said in a statement at the time. “We also terminate any account registered by a member of a designated foreign terrorist organisation and used in an official capacity to further its interests.”

Then Dick Costolo, then the CEO of Twitter, followed YouTube’s lead, tweeting, “We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery. Thank you.” Then Twitter went a step further, agreeing to remove screenshotsof the video from its platform.

Foley’s execution also forced Facebook to become more aggressive about moderating terror-related content across its family of apps.

It wasn’t just tech companies that came out against the distribution of the Foley execution video. There was a concerted push from the Obama administration to work with tech companies to eliminate ISIS from mainstream social networks. After years of government-facilitated discussions, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorismwas formed by YouTube, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter in 2017. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has repeatedly highlighted the department’s anti-ISIS collaboration with the GIFCT as one of the key ways the Trump administration is combating terrorism on the internet.

In a certain sense, there is a similar movement online to #ISISMediaBlackout and a genuine pushback against using the name or sharing pictures of the Christchurch gunman. The House Judiciary Committee announced that it will hold a hearing this month on the rise of white nationalism and has invited the heads of all the major tech platforms to testify. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has vowed to never say the name of the alleged gunman, and continues to call on social media platforms to take more responsibility for the dissemination of his video and manifesto. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

21 March 2019 at 11:34 am

How to Talk About the New Zealand Massacre: More Sunlight, Less Oxygen

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Evan Osnos writes in the New Yorker:

Even more than its predecessors, the massacre in New Zealand feels like the confluence of strands of our times: on March 15th, a gunman with an AR-15 killed forty-nine people during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, the worst massacre in New Zealand’s history. It was a poisonously global moment: the attacker broadcast the massacre live on Facebook, and he posted a so-called manifesto to Twitter, regurgitating neo-Nazi in-jokes and immigration-conspiracy theories about “birth rates” and “white genocide.” His particulars merit little more attention than that.

By now, we know to restrain our instinct to recirculate, and perversely glamourize, the details. We know to deprive the virulent corners of modern life of the “oxygen of amplification,” in the words of Whitney Phillips, of the Data & Society Research Institute, who is the author of a valuable report on the interplay between extremists, technology, and journalism. In a list of best practices, Phillips reminds reporters to treat violent language and memes as “inherently contagious” and to avoid highlighting “objectively false” ideas unless they are prominently undermined.

It is good advice, but it can also be misused. As news spread of the gunman’s motives, Donald Trump, Jr., who is not known for his powers of restraint, expressed a sudden desire not to give the “NZ shooter what he wants.” He tweeted, “Don’t speak his name don’t show the footage. Seems that most agree on that. The questions is can the media do what’s right and pass up the ratings they’ll get by doing the opposite? I fear we all know the answer unfortunately.”

Don, Jr.,’s newfound sympathy for decorum most likely owes less to a nuanced theory of violence and publicity than to the shameful reality that the New Zealand killer hailed his father, President Donald Trump, as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” In the Oval Office, a few hours later, the President was asked if he considers white nationalism a rising threat. “I don’t, really,” he said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” Trump called the incident “a terrible thing.” He was speaking, not incidentally, during a ceremony in which he vetoed an attempt to block his use of emergency funds to build a border wall. He complained, as ever, about an “invasion” of illegal immigrants.

The New Zealand killer takes his place in the cracked pantheon of violent, Trump-admiring extremists: beside the gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, who blamed Jews for resettling refugees and immigrants, whom Trump vilifies as the center of his politics; beside the van-dweller in Miami who found purpose amid the throngs of Trump rallies and set about sending pipe bombs to George Soros, journalists, and Democrats. The New Zealand killer did not exact his violence in America, but he would be at home in our statistics: in the past decade, seventy-three per cent of all American extremist-related killings have come from the right wing, compared to twenty-three per cent from Salafi jihadism and three per cent from the left wing, according to the Soufan Center, which studies global security.

Pointing out those patterns does not feed oxygen to the sources; it subjects them to the disinfecting power of sunlight. We can only have an honest analysis of the sources of this violence if we understand how it grows and spreads. That applies not only to the role of journalism but also to the role of technology. Whenever a killer relies, as he did in this case, on the Internet to amplify the effects of his terror, some inevitably defend social media as no better and no worse than the humanity that uses it. Don’t blame the hammer, we are told; blame the hand. At best, that is a deflection. One does not have to be a Luddite to believe that the worst of social media is not a mirror image of us; it is a grotesque distortion, a funhouse mirror that bulges and squeezes and disfigures us in ways that mock our humanity instead of reinforcing it.

Once again, Facebook finds itself scrambling to explain how it will prevent its creations from being used for harm. When I interviewed a range of Facebook executives last year, several of them touted the use of artificial intelligence and human moderators to prevent the misuse of Facebook Live. Alex Schultz, a longtime Facebook staffer, told me that, to detect instances of suicide or murder on Facebook Live, the company created a system that looks for sudden spikes in attention—“by number of people viewing, by the rate at which those impressions are going up, by the percentage of sad reactions versus likes, by the number of people saying, ‘Oh, my God’ down in the comments.” He said, “Then you need artificial intelligence to be able to read those comments, to get the signal out so you can rank it.” In this case, the rampage was broadcast by a head-mounted camera for a hideous seventeen minutes. It stopped only after Facebook was alerted by New Zealand police. In a statement, Mia Garlick, of Facebook New Zealand, said, “Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by this horrendous act. New Zealand Police alerted us to a video on Facebook shortly after the livestream commenced and we quickly removed both the shooter’s Facebook and Instagram accounts and thevideo.”

By then, archives of the video were everywhere. Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative reporter at the Observertweeted, “I may have reached my moment of total despair. The full video is all over YouTube. All over Facebook.” She pointed to a version that had been watched twenty-three thousand times on Facebook in one hour. “And 1000s out there,” she wrote.

For Facebook, the New Zealand massacre is a gruesome measure of the social-media platform’s power and its limitations. The attack struck just as the company is attempting to refashion itself to focus on small-scale, encrypted conversations. But that new focus will expand alongside the main news feed of public conversation; it will not replace the public forum. And so the peril remains. The company did not create the root cause—what the scholar Thomas Rid calls a “violent transnational neo-fascist ideology”—but the technology has multiplied its force to a degree that is almost beyond measure.

To allow the killer to monopolize the final image of this moment would be a mistake. Instead, it is worth pausing to . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 March 2019 at 5:33 pm

A close look at Donald Trump’s buddy MBS: It Wasn’t Just Khashoggi: A Saudi Prince’s Brutal Drive to Crush Dissent

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Mark Mazzetti and Ben Hubbard report in the NY Times:

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia authorized a secret campaign to silence dissenters — which included the surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudi citizens — more than a year before the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, according to American officials who have read classified intelligence reports about the campaign.

At least some of the clandestine missions were carried out by members of the same team that killed and dismembered Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul in October, suggesting that his killing was a particularly egregious part of a wider campaign to silence Saudi dissidents, according to the officials and associates of some of the Saudi victims.

Members of the team that killed Mr. Khashoggi, which American officials called the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group, were involved in at least a dozen operations starting in 2017, the officials said.

Some of the operations involved forcibly repatriating Saudis from other Arab countries and detaining and abusing prisoners in palaces belonging to the crown prince and his father, King Salman, the officials and associates said.

One of the Saudis detained by the group, a university lecturer in linguistics who wrote a blog about women in Saudi Arabia, tried to kill herself last year after being subjected to psychological torture, according to American intelligence reports and others briefed on her situation.

The rapid intervention team had been so busy that last June its leader asked a top adviser to Prince Mohammed whether the crown prince would give the team bonuses for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, according to American officials familiar with the intelligence reports.

Details about the operations come from American officials who have read classified intelligence assessments about the Saudi campaign, as well as from Saudis with direct knowledge of some of the operations. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from disclosing classified information or, in the case of the Saudis, from angering the Saudi government.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington said the kingdom “takes any allegations of ill treatment of defendants awaiting trial or prisoners serving their sentences very seriously.”

Saudi laws prohibit torture and hold accountable those involved in such abuses of power, the spokesman said, and judges cannot accept confessions obtained under duress. The kingdom’s public prosecutor and the Saudi Human Rights Commission are investigating “recent allegations,” he said.

The Saudi government insists that the killing of Mr. Khashoggi — a dissident journalist living in the United States who wrote for The Washington Post — was not an assassination ordered from Riyadh. The decision to kill him was made by the team on the spot, government officials say, and those responsible are being prosecuted. Turkey and American intelligence agencies say the killing was premeditated.

The kingdom says that 11 Saudis are facing criminal charges for the killing and that prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of them, but officials have not publicly identified the accused.

After the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, Saudi officials acknowledged that the Saudi intelligence service had a standing order to bring dissidents home. What they did not acknowledge was that a specific team had been built to do it.

Saudi officials declined to confirm or deny that such a team existed, or answer questions about its work.

Saudi Arabia has a history of going after dissidents and other Saudi citizens abroad, but the crackdown escalated sharply after Prince Mohammed was elevated to crown prince in 2017, a period when he was moving quickly to consolidate power. He pushed aside Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who oversaw the security services, giving the young prince sway over the intelligence agencies.

Since then, Saudi security forces have detained dozens of clerics, intellectuals and activists who were perceived to pose a threat, as well as people who had posted critical or sarcastic comments about the government on Twitter.

“We’ve never seen it on a scale like this,” said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst now with the Brookings Institution. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2019 at 3:31 pm

Cheap, reliable suicide drones that carry 6 pounds of high explosives, courtesy of Kalashnikov

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I imagine that entire container-loads of these will be purchased by small countries and by terrorists. This from a Washington Post report by Liz Sly, which begins:

The Russian company that gave the world the iconic AK-47 assault rifle has unveiled a suicide drone that may similarly revolutionize war by making sophisticated drone warfare technology widely and cheaply available.

The Kalashnikov Group put a model of its miniature exploding drone on display this week at a major defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, where the world’s arms companies gather every two years to show off and market their latest wares.

The tiny item was dwarfed by the tanks, armored vehicles and fighter jets that were also on display. But it has as much potential to change the face of war as its older cousin, the AK-47, widely referred to simply as the Kalashnikov.

With its low price, high efficiency and ease of use, the Kalashnikov rifle became the weapon of choice for revolutionaries and insurgents around the world, empowering disgruntled citizens against their governments in Latin America, Africa and Asia. It remains a potent tool to this day: The Pentagon purchases secondhand Kalashnikov rifles for its allies in Syria and Afghanistan, rather than give them more expensive American-made guns.

The Kalashnikov drone — officially named the KUB-UAV — will likewise be simple to operate, effective and cheap, its manufacturers claim — and just as revolutionary. It will mark “a step toward a completely new form of combat,” said Sergey Chemezov, chairman of Russia’s state-owned Rostec arms manufacturer, which owns a controlling stake in Kalashnikov, according to Kalashnikov’s news statement on the launch.

The KUB is four feet wide, can fly for 30 minutes at a speed of 80 mph and carries six pounds of explosives, the news release says. That makes it roughly the size of a coffee table that can be guided to explode on a target 40 miles away — the equivalent of a “small, slow and presumably inexpensive cruise missile,” according to a report by the National Interest website.
Whoever buys one will have the ability to steer a bomb with a high degree of accuracy unparalleled except by some of the U.S. military’s smartest bombs, said Nicholas Grossman, a professor of international relations at the University of Illinois and author of the book “Drones and Terrorism.”
“I think of it as democratizing smart bombs,” he said “It means disseminating smart bombs more widely. This would shrink the gap between the most advanced militaries and the smaller ones.”
Suicide drones are not new. The Islamic State pioneered the art of attaching explosives to commercially available drones and detonating them on advancing troops and enemy bases during the battles for the cities of Mosul and Raqqa in Iraq and Syria. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 February 2019 at 12:26 pm

Science Looks at How People Become Radicalized

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Scott Atran writes in Scientific American:

“I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.”—Ernest HemingwayA Farewell to Arms

The revival of parochial nationalism in tandem with the spread of transnational terrorism has fragmented social consensus across the world. Governments and peoples are struggling to understand what to do to get along without constant conflict, or even to see if that is possible anymore. A question that drives my colleagues and me is: Can science be of any help? And here I want to focus on one particular contribution from social science: research into how sacred values can ratchet up conflict, and what might be done about it.

Current forms of seemingly intractable political conflict—over the wall in America, Brexit in Britain, the Yellow Vests in France, Catalonian Independence in Spain—appear to share two critical features of more violent enduring conflicts, such as the Israel-Palestine dispute or the fight with ISIS and its ilk, which our interdisciplinary research teams of scientists, policymakers and artists at Artis International have been exploring in depth for more than a decade: entrenchment of issues, however material to begin with, in appeal to the uncompromising nature of so-called “sacred values” that people believe in, like God and country; and the belief that the one side, because of its antagonistic values, wants to exclude the other side from social or political life, or even from life itself.

With support from Minerva Research Initiative of the U.S. Department of Defense and National Science Foundation, we recently published the first neuroimaging study of a radicalizing population. The research used ethnographic surveys and psychological analysis to identify 535 young Muslim men in and around Barcelona—where ISIS-supporting jihadis killed 13 people and wounded 100 more in the city center in August 2017.

Half of these young men (267) scored higher that the other half (268) on all measures of vulnerability to recruitment into violent extremism. From the more vulnerable group, 38 men, second-generation immigrants of Moroccan origin who had already “expressed a willingness to engage in or facilitate violence associated with jihadist causes,” agreed to have their brains scanned.

The young men selected for the neuroimaging study then played a ball-throwing game (Cyberball) with fellow Spaniards, and half of them were abruptly and deliberately excluded from being passed the ball. Their brains were then scanned while asking them questions about behavior and policies they considered sacred and inviolable (e.g., forbidding cartoons of the Prophet, preventing gay marriage) as well non-sacred but important values (e.g., women wearing the veil, unrestricted construction of mosques).

As our previous research with populations on five continents indicated (from Lowland Maya in Guatemala devoted to preserving their forest, to fighters in Indonesia devoted to militant Jihad), sacred values are preferences for which no material compromise is possible, which are immune, or strongly resistant, to costs or consequences and risks or rewards, to temporal and spatial discounting (what is distant in space or time can be far more important than the here-and-now, as with Jerusalem or the Second Coming for true believers), and where standard “business-like” negotiations tend to fail. Sacred values tend to be associated with unconditional cooperation for those who hold to such values as well as intractable conflict with those who don’t. Results showed that the neurological impact of being excluded meant that issues they had previously considered non-sacred became far more important and were now deemed similar to those considered “sacred” and worth fighting and dying for.

These findings suggest that sacralization of values interacts with willingness to engage in extreme behavior in populations vulnerable to radicalization. In addition, social exclusion appears to be a relevant factor motivating violent extremism and consolidation of sacred values. If so, counteracting social exclusion and sacralization of values should figure into policies to prevent radicalization.

In previous work in Iran, we found that sanctions (a more general political sense of exclusion) ramped up belief in the nuclear program as a sacred value, as well as actions associated with the program (e.g., increased enrichment and production of centrifuges). Note that sacred values can be religious (as with ISIS) or secular (as with the Marxist-Leninist PKK), although in the Iran case we found the sacralization of the nuclear program also became bound up with religion (among 11–13 percent of the population—mostly rural religious supporters of the hardliners—in our two successive studies).

Sacred values seem to be associated with areas of the brain involved in rule-bound behavior. That is, when sacred values are in play (versus non-sacred values) there is inhibition of deliberative reasoning in favor of rapid, duty-bound responses (we have another neuroimaging study that we presented at a previous Minerva conference, which clearly shows this among supporters of an al-Qaeda affiliate, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba, in their expressed willingness to fight and die for those values).

The brain research also complements, and replicates, another recent study by our research team at the front line with combatants in Iraq (ISIS, PKK, Sunni militia, Peshmerga, Iraqi Army). There, we show that willingness to fight and die (which can be measured behaviorally but also verified in terms of casualties, time at the front, etc.) is greatest for those who believe they are fighting for sacred values, and who also perceive “spiritual strength” (whether of their own group, allies, or enemies) as more important than material strength (manpower and firepower).

This research teases out aspects of a “devoted actor paradigm,” which we first presented to the National Security Council at the White House when Artis was formed in 2006. The aim was to bring together academic researchers and policymakers as a way of getting a handle on value-driven violence (as opposed to standard rational-actor/cost-benefit models of conflict), and more generally to figure out ways to reduce violence so as to enhance national and international security.

A key finding of this research for policymakers, whether in defense and war planning or in social programs aimed at preventing violence, is that when matters that are believed to be sacred are involved, people cannot be swayed from defense, or even offensive pursuit, of their beliefs with carrots or sticks, as with ISIS. People who are willing to sacrifice everything, including their lives—the totality of their self-interests—will not be lured away just by material incentives or disincentives such as pay, promotion or punishment. That is one reason why . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 January 2019 at 5:16 pm

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